Dave Thomas's
Remarkable Teachers

Jim McArthur

by Bill Harris

Dave Thomas traces his ability to write comedy – heck, his ability to write anything – back to the influence of one very important man: Jim McArthur, his Grade 13 English teacher at Dundas District High School.

Not every hoser can write comedy, but Dave Thomas sure can.

From his legendary sketch work on SCTV, through various sitcoms and movies, right up to his current animated series Bob and Doug (which airs on Global, with Thomas providing the voice for the cartoon version of his alter ego Doug McKenzie), the 60-year-old Thomas has established himself as one of the funniest people Canada has ever produced.

“I had no thought of being a writer, none whatsoever. I didn’t really have any thought of TV, other than I wished I could do it, but I didn’t see how that was possible from Dundas.

“It was Jim McArthur who inspired me.”

He’s speaking of his Grade 13 English Teacher at Dundas District High School in the Hamilton-Wentworth DSB, which became a middle school in 1982 and was permanently closed in 2007.

“All roads lead back to this guy,” says Thomas, on the phone from his California office where he runs an animation company, among other things. “Really, I had never written a thing until I had Jim McArthur as a teacher, not anything.

“He opened my mind to the great writers, like Shakespeare and Conrad, and to poets like Keats and Wordsworth. Even the smartest high school students rarely understand Shakespeare’s complicated, iambic, classically referenced plays. But Jim McArthur managed to read it, explain it and, more importantly, he felt it.

“And some of us picked that up.”

Thomas was born in St. Catharines but when he was very young his family moved to North Carolina where his dad worked at Duke University and Thomas attended Grades 1 to 7. Then his family moved to Britain for a year before returning to Canada.

“My dad was a philosopher,” Thomas says with a chuckle. “A philosopher – what a bizarre thing to be in the 20th century, you know what I mean? He would be thinking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while I was trying to get help with my homework. That’s how I got so whimsical.”

Thomas spent his entire high school career at Dundas District High School, and it was quite a shock at first.

“DDHS was a small, old, authoritarian school at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment,” says Thomas. “Corporal punishment was still the order of the day there in the 1960s. It wasn’t unusual to see a student get hit in the face with a large textbook or knocked out of his desk with head blows that were loud and frightening.

“Underachievers and kids who weren’t that bright were frequently humiliated, forced to stand while the teacher dressed them down in front of the class. One teacher would take all exam papers with grades less than 60, throw them on the floor and order the students whose exams they were to pick them up.

“I hated this school because of teachers who ran amok over the students in ways that, today, would probably result in criminal charges.

“But in that crazy place, there were Jim and Fran McArthur – two teachers who were reasonable, fair and decent to all of their students.”

At the time, he knew Jim McArthur’s wife, Fran McArthur – who also taught at the school – mostly by reputation, though she occasionally filled in for some of Dave’s classes. (She played a larger role in the development of Dave’s younger brother, musician Ian Thomas.)

“Dave’s a very ethical person and things were happening at the school that were driving him just nuts,” says McArthur, who is now retired and lives near Owen Sound. “By the time Dave got to me, he was pretty unhappy.

“When he came to my class, I don’t know exactly why but he sat right in the front row, the first seat. I guess he was up there hoping for something better.”

For Thomas, McArthur’s class was “kind of a safe harbour – a class where no one was going to get hit with a book.”

“He actually believed in what he was teaching. He felt the literature and he conveyed that feeling.”

In fact, McArthur gave Thomas an entirely new perspective on books.

“The guy’s up there, and he has a text that he’s reading, and you’re thinking, ‘He’s holding it like it’s a bag of gold, for God’s sake – what’s so good about that book?’”

McArthur’s reverence made a lasting impression on Thomas.

“Jim respected us without threatening or hitting us, and therefore we respected him,” Thomas says. “That in itself would have been enough for me. But he actually believed in what he was teaching. He felt the literature and he conveyed that feeling for words well written.

“I found myself getting a real jump ahead as a writer because I was taught by a man who not only appreciated the greats, but through his unusual empathy with the text, he imparted some of the feeling that must have gone into creating those works. That was an inspiration to me.

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas were Bob and Doug McKenzie in Strange Brew, 1983.

“Although I went on to write mainly TV and not books or scholarly works, I always approached it with this inspiration from Jim McArthur in mind. Shakespeare wrote for his audience, for the groundlings at the Globe Theatre. His plays made his audience laugh and cheer. So when I started working I wanted to write TV comedy that connected with my audience the way Shakespeare connected with his audience.

“I was lucky enough to get SCTV as a platform for that kind of writing. The show gave me an opportunity to write, write, write and a chance to create characters that I hoped would connect with the audience.”

Thomas points out that McArthur was not a stereotypical academic but a well-rounded man who was also the football coach.

“I was not only the football coach, I was the volleyball coach and I helped in track and field. It was a small school where you did everything. I had to coach basketball too, and I didn’t know a damn thing about it.

“I guess I just guided him in some way into the poetry of literature, whether it was Hamlet or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, because those are beautifully structured things, with images repeating themselves. Dave was fascinated by the idea of writing being a clever manipulation of language. He just loved that.”

Of course, Dave Thomas was already a funny guy in Grade 13.

“He sat in the front and every once in a while he made a joke – and that made me feel really good, that he felt comfortable enough to do that,” McArthur says.

“But he was always very respectful. If he wanted to go on for too long like Dave Thomas the funny guy, I just gave him a little look and he’d cool off.”

Thomas has his own theories about his penchant for humour.

“I believe that being funny is a condition, not a talent. It’s what somebody does to survive, not something you’re born with as a gift.

“I could make people laugh, but I usually did it for a reason, to make a girl like me, you know, to become accepted,” Thomas says. “I wasn’t athletic at all, and at Dundas District you could either be on the track team or the football team, and I couldn’t do either. So there was no other way to distinguish myself except with my comedy.”

Regardless of its origin, Thomas has the self-deprecating comedy thing down pat and dips into the well when asked if he would describe himself as a good student.

“I think I was just good at writing exams,” he says. “But I didn’t really know that much.”

In any event, in Grade 13 English Thomas excelled in what were known at the time as departmental exams – exams not graded by your own teacher.

“I was so inspired by this guy, Jim McArthur,” says Thomas, “I actually got the highest grade in the school in my English final, and he was pretty proud of that.” Thomas pauses momentarily, as if an idea is occurring to him for the first time. “And so was I. I was so pleased that I could show him his teaching worked.”

Jim McArthur and Dave Thomas in 2000 

Through Grade 13 and the following summer, Thomas got to know Jim and Fran McArthur not just as teachers but as people. “I kept in touch and kind of consulted with Jim as I went through college,” he recalls of his years at McMaster. “When I was just out of high school I introduced Jim and Fran to my pals. Marty Short and I went up to Owen Sound and stayed at their house. So they knew Marty and Eugene Levy and those guys when we were starting out in comedy.

“And I’ve stayed in touch. I talk to Jim on the phone all the time. They’ve come down to California to visit.”

McArthur says he is happy to have been there for Thomas at an important transitional stage in his life. “When kids are breaking away from Mom and Dad, they find an adult substitute,” he says. “Dave used to come up and visit. And he was interested in the girl across the street – oh, maybe I should have kept quiet about that.” He laughs. “But he’d come in and talk till three in the morning. It was a huge compliment. I was pleased because not only did I respect him, I respected his loyalty. He has been wonderful.”

“We still get frequent calls when he’s on the Pacific Coast Highway on his way home from the office. The phone cuts out a few times when he goes under tunnels but he calls back, and the conversation ends when he pulls into his driveway. I think that’s just wonderful.”

Considering the positive impact he had on Dave Thomas, what message would Jim McArthur have for young teachers everywhere today?

He breaks it down into four points:

“One, you have to know your subject,” says McArthur. “You can’t go in and pretend.

“Two, you have to really like it.

“Three, you must be enthusiastic about it.

“And four, you have to be open and fair with kids. You have to be, so that the kids trust you.

“It worked for me.”

As Thomas has said, the number one reason he wanted to love literature was that Jim McArthur seemed to love it so much.

“Oh, I did,” McArthur agrees. “A teacher without enthusiasm might as well go somewhere else. I just loved my job.”

All things considered, Jim McArthur was kind of the missing link between William Shakespeare and Dave Thomas. Who knew?

“Look, nobody liked Shakespeare in high school. It’s ridiculously difficult to understand. I didn’t get it.

“So then I get this guy, Jim McArthur, who’s like a UN translator. He’s spitting it out in a way that we can get it. My ears definitely perked up.

“First, I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to get hit with a book here.’ And second, ‘The guy actually has something to say – and look how much he loves it.’ That was the weirdest thing.

“It’s the same as parenting. You tell your kids anything, they don’t listen, but they look at you and the life you lead, and that’s what they use. That’s their yardstick.”

Ultimately, having a true passion for what you do is the most direct path for a teacher to connect with a student.

“Kids will pick up on that,” says Thomas, adding “Well, some won’t – there are some tough nuts you just can’t crack. But with Jim McArthur, they all got treated with respect.

“Nobody disliked this guy. I’ve stayed friends with some of the other guys who were in that class, and they’re working in every different walk of life there is, and they’ll all say, ‘He was a good guy.’ Every one of them. Jim McArthur just struck you as a good guy.”

What a tremendous personal and professional legacy.

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